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Queer Perspectives in Communication Studies

Summary and Keywords

Queer perspectives in communication studies vary greatly, but they tend to share some common assumptions about the communicative force of norms, including those related to sexualities, genders, bodies, races, ethnicities, abilities, and desires. In general, queer perspectives question the legitimacy of hegemonic assumptions about bodies and sexualities, opting instead for more fluid and porous discourses and norms. Influenced by Michel Foucault’s theories about the productive and generative nature of discourses and Judith Butler’s elaboration on the performativity of identity and agency, communication studies scholars have mined queer theory for insights into our collective and individual investments in naturalized norms as well as efforts to resist them. One of the difficulties in corralling the varied meanings of “queer” into an encyclopedia entry is that it can operate as a noun, adjective, or verb, which has different implications for critics interested in its employ.

Keywords: bodies, criticism, discourse, gender, identity, norms, queer theory, performativity/performative, race/racialization, sexuality, transgender/transsexual

Queer Origin Stories

Attempts to summarize or define queer theory invariably begin with qualifying remarks regarding the enigmatic qualities of queerness. Although conceptualizations of queerness vary greatly, even from author to author, they typically rely upon some sense of resistance, including the refusal to afford legitimacy to discrete classificatory schema or essentialized elements of identities. In this way, as Sara Salih (2002) explains, the slipperiness of the term “queer” confounds the cataloguing of queerness because a queer perspective “is not concerned with definition, fixity or stasis, but is transitive, multiple, and anti-assimilationist” (p. 9). As a thoroughly anti-essentialist enterprise, then, queer theory may not yield itself to the easy capture of generalizations, but even so, its theoretical lineages may be traced and usages mapped, both inside and outside of the disciplines of communication studies.

In many histories of queer studies, Teresa de Lauretis (1991) is credited with coining the term “queer theory” at a conference at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1990. “The term ‘queer,’ juxtaposed to ‘lesbian and gay,’” de Lauretis argued, was “intended to mark a certain critical distance from the latter, by now established and often convenient formula” (p. iv) of presenting lesbians and gay men as a homogenous whole with fixed identities, predictable politics, and similar styles. Expounding further, de Lauretis stressed how “queer theory” provided a name for a loosely tethered set of perspective that would, in reference to stable notions of identity and politics, “transgress and transcend them—or at the very least problematize them” (p. v).1 In concrete terms, de Lauretis named what previously had been a loose assemblage of critical practices concerned with challenging naturalized assumptions about genders, bodies, sexualities, and desires.

Of course, like all histories, this origin story is an incomplete accounting of the multiple sites of queer theory’s emergence inside and outside of the academy. A more expansive history would recount: communication studies scholars Paula Treichler (1999) and Cindy Patton’s (1985, 1990, 1993, 2002) contributions to our understanding of HIV/AIDS; Esther Newton (1972, 2000) and Gayle Rubin’s (1984) anthropological challenge to the cultural construction of naturalized and deviant genders and sexualities in American life; the convergence of queer readings in literature and art in the work of Lauren Berlant and Elizabeth Freeman (1993), Leo Bersani (1987, 1995), D. A. Miller (1992), Adrienne Rich (1980), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1985, 1990), and Michael Warner (1993, 1999); Judith Butler’s (1990, 1993, 1997) queering of the stable subjectivities in feminist philosophy and politics and similar moves by Sandy Stone (1991) and Donna Haraway (1991) in feminist science studies; the excavation of queer lives by historians John D’Emilio (1983), Estelle Freedman (1988), Jonathan Ned Katz (1995), George Chauncey (1995), and Leslie Feinberg (1996); and racialized readings of gender and sexuality from Gloria Anzaldúa (1987), Cathy Cohen (1997, 1999), and Audre Lorde (1984).2 More often than not, political and cultural developments outside academia informed these scholars and intellectuals. As Michael Warner (2012) reminds us, when we try to locate an origin story for queer theory, “What is often forgotten about that moment is that the term came from grass-roots politics before it became theory” (p. B7). The direct action protests of various incarnations of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), Queer Nation, Transgender Nation, and Transexual Menace infused academic queer theory with urgency and righteousness about the need to decenter the hegemonic matrixes that privileged white, heteronormative3 masculinities and femininities. Likewise, the flows between academia and the arts, such as film critic B. Ruby Rich’s attention to new queer cinema, Kate Bornstein’s performance art, and the poetry and documentaries of Essex Hemphill and Marlon Riggs, produced productive pathways for rethinking well-established and accepted critical theories.

Finally, narrowing the focus back to communication studies, no retelling of queer theory’s early trajectories would be complete without also charting a parallel, internal history of the research rejected by those invested in conscious and unconscious forms of heteronormativity and queer erasure, including scholars who preferred LGBT studies to queer studies (Morris & Palczewski, 2014). In practice, LGBT and queer studies have never been discrete lines of inquiry or linearly sequential as their adherents might portray them to be, yet, nevertheless, schisms between LGBT and queer studies have flared up, owing some of their genesis to real or perceived generational differences, political priorities, and personal conflicts (Gross, 2005). Also, in some articulations of queer theory, scholars deployed it as a corrective to LGBT studies, condemning the recuperation of LGBT speakers or the identification of sexuality as a variable as irreparably intertwined with essentialized sexual identities. Although now we may read these projects as more complementary than antagonistic to one another, the hard-fought struggle of LGBT studies in communication studies should be acknowledged as part of queer theory’s intellectual lineage.4 All of this is to say, in reviewing the development of queer theory in communication studies, readers must keep in mind that researchers have had to negotiate multiple forms of gatekeeping along the way.

Defining the Queer in Queer Theory

Without any one authoritative or germinal definition from which to work, say an explicitly defined concept more typically found in social science research, scholars have operationalized “queer” in various ways. For example, some have stressed queer theory’s emphasis on sexualities and desires as a way to distinguish it from feminist theory’s primary interest in gender. Annamarie Jagose (1996) proposed the following definition of the term queer:

Broadly speaking, queer describes those gestures or analytical models which dramatize incoherencies in the allegedly stable relations between chromosomal sex, gender, and sexual desire. Resisting that model of stability—which claims heterosexuality as its origin, when it is more properly its effect—queer focuses on mismatches between sex, gender, and desire. (p. 3)5

Although there has been and continues to be significant disagreement about whether or not queer has a necessary correspondence to sexuality, many of the earliest formulations of queer as a category of analysis included some consideration of non-normative sexualities as a constitutive component of queerness.

In addition to queerness as a mode of individual expression, queer can be defined as a mode of analysis that toggles between individuals and cultures to give presence to instruments of heteronormativity and the resistances practiced against these forces. Michael Warner (1991) explained this critical enterprise in the following terms:

The insistence on “queer”—a term defined against “normal” and generated precisely in the context of terror—has the effect of pointing out a wide field of normalization, rather than simple intolerance, as a site of violence. Its brilliance as a naming strategy lies in combining resistance on the broad social terrain of the normal with more specific resistance on the terrains of phobia and queer-bashing, on one hand, or of pleasure on the other. (p. 16)

By directing attention to cultural inducements to heteronormative conformity as well as exposing potential cracks in these networks, Warner’s definition highlights the twin impulses of queer theory: critical analysis and praxis for changing these conditions of possibility.

More recently, the category of queerness has taken on a more ecumenical tone as it has been defined as an umbrella term that exceeds differentiation based on sexuality alone to imagine queerness in more capacious terms to include the shared concerns of trans folk, single persons, people of color, and transnational alliances of oppressed persons. Moreover, a more explicit emphasis on activism and collective action against a broader range of normativities than heteronormativity alone is increasingly prevalent. Cathy Cohen (1997) asked queer theorists and political actors to think of queerness more broadly to expand, rather than limit, its coalitional possibilities by reconsidering the shared conditions of multiple, even overlapping and intersectional, groups, such as racial minorities and economically disadvantaged persons. For similar reasons, José Esteban Muñoz (2009) emphasized the creative capacities of queer thought and movement when he described queerness as “that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing,” and in its goading for something else, queerness is a “rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world” (p. 1).

As stated earlier, part of the difficulty in mapping out queer’s queer career is rooted in the academic appropriations of this theory from activists and activism outside of the academy, including the ever-changing terminologies of queerness as well as the cultural productions of queerness (e.g., protests, art, political formations, the proliferation of filial bonds, and so on). Judith Butler (1999) identifies this academic interchange as “necessarily impure, where it emerges in and as the very event of cultural translation” (p. ix). In addition, rather than lament queer’s indeterminacy, its protean qualities afford communication studies significant latitude as a perspective for research. In Butler’s (1993) estimation,

If the term “queer” is to be the site of collective contestation, the point of departure for a set of historical reflections and futural imaginings, it will have to remain that which is, in the present, never fully owned, but always and only redeployed, twisted, queered from a prior usage and in the direction of urgent and expanding political purposes. (p. 228)

Consequently, queer as a critical category is deconstructive in the most productive sense of the term, leaving itself open for revision and challenge from what has been excluded and occluded in its definition (Rand, 2004; Sewell, 2014). For those interested in practicing queer criticism in communication studies, however, the varied aims and objects of queer theory have frustrated attempts to develop a consensus about its conventions (Alexander & Rhodes, 2015; Rand, 2013; Spencer, 2014; West, 2013).

This short genealogy of the term “queer” evidences the difficulty in trying to pin down a word that can function as a noun, adjective, and verb (Jakobsen, 1998). Of course, these different forms are interrelated and inform one another. To tease out some of the differences, subsequent sections will review communication studies scholarship related to identities (noun), representations (adjectives), and politics (verb). Although it is an imprecise and incomplete grafting of different parts of speech onto complex scholarly conversations, what it allows is an opportunity to trace some emergent themes across the subfields of communication studies without any necessary assumptions about how a particular subfield does or does not employ queer studies in their work. Before that, however, two figures loom large enough in this work that it requires a pause to explore further their corpus: first, Michel Foucault, then Butler, are taken up in turn.

Michel Foucault: Discourse, Knowledge, Power

The nexus between discourse, knowledge, and power motivated Michel Foucault’s inquiries into topics as varied as the penal system, psychiatry, and academic disciplines. As someone suspicious of the desires behind discrete classifications, Foucault (1969, 1971/1972) never defined or delimited the term “discourse,” opting instead to “[treat] it sometimes as the general domain of all statements, sometimes as an individualizable group of statements, and sometimes as a regulated practice that accounts for a certain number of statements” (p. 80). In his studies of discursive formations, Foucault performed genealogical investigations into how experts and lay people alike employed discourses to create knowledges that would then be recirculated through discourses as truths, thereby concealing their status as merely one way of understanding the world against all other possibilities. In this way, Foucault challenged the prevailing trends in critical theory whereby communication had been treated as an epiphenomenal consideration in critical theory, meaning communication often served an instrumental role in the service of securing and perpetuating dominant ideologies.

Rather than accept this nihilistic rendering of power, wherein human agency could be found only in the elimination of ideologies, Foucault sought out to demonstrate how discourses participate in the formation of knowledges and exercises of power that are productive. In Foucault’s (1980) estimation, ideology, as a critical category of analysis, fails us because it relies on at least three problematic assumptions: (1) most theories of ideology involve some form of obfuscation vis-à-vis an external and transcendent truth, which Foucault refused to ratify; (2) many theories of ideology rely on the recuperation of a sovereign subject who can somehow transcend existing power relations and step outside of them into a field devoid of power; and (3) the process of demystifying ideologies repeats the epiphenomenal error that grants undue agency to external forces acting on us as opposed to power operating in and through us. In short, ideological analysis, for Foucault, makes the mistake of presuming that ideologies can be overcome, once and for all, in the final instance, by a shift in consciousness. Yet, Foucault understood that cultures are dependent upon shared and naturalized assumptions for the living of our lives together. As a result, rooting out all ideologies is a quixotic task because even in the event of an overthrowing of one ideological regime, we would be immersed into another set of ideological regimes. All is not lost, according to Foucault, because not all ideologies or norms operate equally or harmfully, as he demonstrated in his writings on human sexuality.

When Foucault set his sights on sexuality, he sought out to draw a diachronic map of the knowledges of sexuality, including the regulation of sexuality and desires as well as its practices.6 Foucault would die before he finished the complete series, but the first volume, La volonté de savoir (The Will to Knowledge; 1976/1978), served as one of the foundational texts for queer theorists due to its subject matter and its attention to resistance as a political project. For communication studies scholars, four moves in this volume are valuable touchstones for theorizing communication, identity, and politics.

First, Foucault rejected the repressive hypothesis. In brief, the repressive hypothesis suggested that people felt and described themselves as sexually repressed by multiple sources of prohibition, such as churches and the state. Foucault documented that a very different state of affairs persisted despite these supposed prohibitions. Less a case of prohibition, people enjoyed recirculating the idea of the repressive hypothesis so they could experience the pleasure of violating it through talk about sex, if not participating in prohibited sex acts themselves. This critique of the repressive hypothesis laid the groundwork to challenge psychological cures for nonnormative personalities, which often depended upon the excavation of a sovereign subject from a traumatic event. In the same stroke, Foucault’s critique of the repressive hypothesis refused to acknowledge it as an ideology capable of creating one and only one kind of subject. In this way, Foucault valued communication as a subjective experience capable of producing pleasure and pain.

Second, Foucault traced how desires are translated in power-knowledge through discourse, from religious practices like confession to psychiatric discourses of proper sexualities. The slow codification of scientia sexualis over ars erotica, or the intensification of truths about sex over and against a culture concerned with maximizing pleasures (multiplying discourses instead of multiplying pleasures), demanded that desires be translated into discourses about the self that could be classified, placed within hierarchies, and valued and devalued. As truths about sex cohered into overarching theories of personage, what might have been previously understood as a sexual act performed by a person transformed into a reflection of their true identity. Thus, when Foucault (1976/1978) states, “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (p. 43), he is not saying that same-sex sexual acts or attractions did not exist prior to 1870, only that the consolidation of medical discourses settled upon homosexuality as an identity category characterized by same-sex sexual practices as expressions of an inner, true self.7 Part and parcel with the repressive hypothesis, Foucault wanted to use these examples to demonstrate how identities are an effect of discourse, rather than discourse reflecting one’s core identity.

Third, identities allow for resistance, as demonstrated through multiple examples of persons using categories of identity to resist their oppression. In spite of some of the more horrific experiences suffered by those with deviant sexualities, Foucault read against the grain to expose how these identities afforded subjects avenues for resistance. At the nexus of power-knowledge is an opportunity to be recognized and work the weaknesses of the hegemonic logics operative in a particular context, thus providing communication as a necessary site of agency and politics.

Fourth, if power is not possessed but is instead exercised through the joining of power-knowledge in specific exercises of power, a different kind of politics is in order—not the demystifying agenda of many critical theorists, but instead, a politics of resistance that works within existing power relations. For Foucault, there is nothing outside of the network of power relations operative in our cultural webs. Instead of trying to seize power away from someone else, a logic of revolution proves to be liable to the ideological trappings noted above. Yet, opportunities for resistance are created by exercises of power. Thus, identities and recognition create chances to shift, but not escape, power relations.

Taken together, these four principles from Foucault have informed communication studies scholarship in important ways, especially with regard to the interconnectedness of discourses, power, identities, and resistance. Foucault’s work also forms some of the primary foci for Butler.

Judith Butler, Speech Acts, and Performativity

Judith Butler’s conception of performativity circulates widely in communication studies due to its emphasis on the communicative flows of identities in specific contexts, thus allowing for a theory of agency located in the negotiation of symbols between persons and institutions. In an extension of Foucault’s thoughts on the communicative dimensions of identities, agency, and politics, Butler presents a compelling case for reevaluating multiple foundational logics operative in communication studies, particularly speakers, identities, and effects.

For Butler, performativity is different from performance. On Butler’s reading, performance relies on a sovereign subject imbued with intentions, such as someone who is performing a role or putting on a performance.8 In contrast, performativity questions the concept of the speaking and thinking subject from the outset. Indebted to Friedrich Nietzsche’s metaphysical challenge to the idea of the subject, Butler asks us to rethink the subject: “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; the ‘doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything” (as cited in Butler, 1999, p. 33). Along with Nietzsche, Butler is not denying the existence of persons who speak and move, but Butler questions the temporalities associated with common conceptions of subjectivity, meaning, in the case of communication studies, foregoing fundamental assumptions such as the premise that the speaker precedes the act of speaking. Why? In brief, beliefs in the sovereign subject imbued with discernable intents and self-mastery inhibits the possibility to question how those subjects came into being through discourses. Echoing Foucault, what happens if we approach subjects not as sources of discourse, but as effects of discourse?

With this in mind, Butler negotiates different understandings of speech acts and their effects, especially J. L. Austin’s (1962) speech act theories and Louis Althusser’s (1970/1971) earlier theorizations of interpellation to explain how subjects share space and time with one another through intersubjective experiences with one another.

For Austin, among the various types of speech acts are constative statements and performative utterances. Even for Austin himself, the distinctions between these were difficult to uphold, but the general idea is that some statements convey information (constative utterances) and some utterances do something as they are announced (performative utterances). When a layperson says, “I hope that criminal is put to death,” it is a constative claim in Austin’s formulation, while a criminal judge’s performative utterance, “I sentence you to death,” is both informative but also carries with it the force of the law behind it. More than an instrumental act of communication, such a performative utterance sets into motion the machinery of the death penalty. Butler rejects this bifurcation and its underlying temporalities. For Butler, this distinction collapses under the weight of its logic because the constative claim is also performative, although not always in the grand ways associated with performative utterances such as a death sentence. To name something is to performatively reproduce a set of assumptions and norms as subjects negotiate the meanings of such statements. Owing something to Jacques Derrida’s work on citationality, subjects exist in chains of signification—today, we may think of these as networks of meaning—that precede and exceed any one person’s intentions.

What Butler wants to preserve is the notion that language (symbols) participates in intersubjective relations, meaning, language (speech acts) and establishes relationalities based on contexts and prior knowledges as well as the historicity of those symbols. Also, then, speech acts help to situate interlocutors in signifying chains that precede and exceed them—we are not sovereign subjects outside of the reach of the subjectivizing radiances of power-knowledges. The signifying chain is not determinative in the final instance because symbols are porous and polysemous, which requires revisiting Althusser and interpellation if a statement is never self-contained or self-executing in line with the speaker’s intentions.

On Althusser’s accountings of ideology and subjectivity, interpellation explains how ideologies constitute subjects and solidify certain kinds of consciousness. In contrast to Foucault, for Althusser, subjects are placed into ideological positions by an institution or one of its agents through the hailing of the subject. As the subject accepts this recognition, they are interpellated or constrained by the ideological conditions of the hail. What Butler wants to recuperate is a sense of recognition with a looser ideological grasp, hence the interjection of Foucault to help explain how discourses constitute multiple subjectivities rather than a singular, ideologically-secured position. That is, for Butler, this is recognition without ideological capture, which does not deny that ideology acts, but that its capture is not complete or determining (recalling Foucault’s notion, where there is power, there is resistance). For Butler, agency is found in the resistances negotiated by subjectivities and institutions and each other in a complex web where nothing is guaranteed in advance as negotiations and renegotiations of these ever-shifting power relations continually do and undo each other. Undoubtedly, some relations of power are more sticky and recalcitrant than others, but agency is not found in the reversal of power—it is temporally situated in its disruption at more localized levels.

Together, Foucault and Butler have assisted communication scholars to highlight the communicative dimensions of identities, representations, and politics as worthwhile sites of analysis.

Queer People

The term “queer” can operate as a noun naming a person and/or their identity (e.g., queers), a collective noun (e.g., queers of color), or as an adjective to modify an individual or a class of persons (e.g., queer students). As a result, some scholars employ “queer” in imprecise ways, sometimes as a synonym for LGBT persons, sometimes as an umbrella term that is meant to convey something more inclusive and capacious than LGBT, or as something divorced completely from sexual orientation and gender identity altogether.

In some ways, reflecting the tension in Foucault, the identity category of queer is one open to patrol and discipline by those who may identify as queer and those who do not (Brookey, 2002; Cram, 2012; Brouwer, 2004; Fox & Warber, 2015; Grindstaff, 2006; Poirot, 2009). Alternatively, others anchor their analysis in the performativities of queer identities wherein the fluidity of queer categories of identity is unstable and unpredictable (Bennett, 2003; Brookey, 1998; Faulkner & Hecht, 2011; Fox, 2007, 2010; Morris, 1996, 1998, 2010; Wight, 2011). For example, historical inquiry into the communicative patterns and choices of those we may classify as queer have demonstrated the variety of subject positions available to individuals that complicate our understanding of what it means to be marked or not by queerness in those times and spaces (Cram, 2016; Dunn, 2016; Morris, 1996, 1998). Many of the earlier incarnations centered cisgender, white gay men, but, more recently, challenges to this academic norms are making communication studies accountable to these blindspots, including research emphasizing ethnic and racialized identities (Abdi & Van Gilder, 2016; Lee, 2003; McCune, 2008, 2014; Moreman & McIntosh, 2010; Pelle, 2010; Snorton, 2014; Van Gilder & Abdi, 2014) as well as trans identities (Cavalcante, 2016; Nuru, 2014; Wagner, Kunkel, & Compton, 2016). More direct challenges to queer articulations of performativity, derived from the experiences of people of color, have destabilized the mythic status of white, gay, cisgender men as the norm for communication studies scholarship (Howard, 2014). Most notably, E. Patrick Johnson’s (2001) coining of “quare studies” as a perspective that makes scholars accountable to the embodiedness of racialized sexualities has spawned others to model this decentering of dominant norms and assumptions in queer studies.

In relative terms, scholars working in intercultural, interpersonal, organizational, relational, and family communication have adopted and employed queer perspectives at a slower pace than their counterparts in rhetorical, media, and performance studies. In line with other social sciences, these subfields have tended to treat non-normative sexual relationships and gender identities as outliers when crafting calls for participation, collecting data, and interpreting results (Chevrette, 2013; Goins & Pye, 2013; Heinz, 2002; Wood & Duck, 1995). Scholars have called for their colleagues to recognize and resist the myriad ways that heteronormativity is implicitly and explicitly privileged in these subfields (Elia, 2003; Foster, 2008; Lovaas, 2003; McDonald, 2015; Rich, Schutten, & Rogers, 2012). More than just additive measures of including self-identified queers in research questions, scholars have requested a fuller accounting of how heteronormativity operates in the conventions of communication research, including: disproportionate focus on dyads and dyadic communication, an overreliance on conventional family structures as the sources of knowledge instead of kinship networks, measures of family structures that tend to incorporate and strengthen naturalized assumptions about normative genders and sexualities, and how language choices such as alternative families or conclusions that stress similarities between LGBT and non-LGBT families can reinforce heterosexual norms as normative. These concerns are not the provenance of these subfields alone, but they do help to explain why queer theory has been explored less in these lines of research.

That said, there are some notable exceptions in these subfields, particularly in family communication. More recent work emphasizing the discursive challenges associated with lesbian motherhood (Bergen, Suter, & Daas, 2006; Breshears, 2010, 2011; Suter, Seurer, Webb, Grewe, & Koenig Kellas, 2015), the communicative potential of non-hetero-nuclear families to subvert prevailing understandings of families and relational norms (Bacon, 2012; Baxter, 2014; Bevan & Lannutti, 2002; Breshears & Braithwaite, 2014; Suter & Strasser, 2014), how families can redeploy of symbols such as rings and homes in a non-heteronormative key (Suter & Daas, 2007), and how transgender individuals introduce new modes of identification for their families (Norwood, 2012, 2013a, 2013b, 2014).

Likewise, a nascent interest in queer topics is blossoming in intercultural communication as well (Chávez, 2013b; Eguchi, 2015; Eguchi & Asante, 2016). At the heart of this work is scholarly pressure upon national, regional, and racialized assumptions about genders, sexualities, bodies, and desires. In turn, queer intercultural communication studies is queering the field through studies on how bodies are made legible to each other (McKinnon, 2016), how transnational flows of bodies and discourses inform legal regimes (Erni, 2017), and the need for critical self-reflexivity in analyzing the discourses of persons in and out of their immediate cultural contexts (Goltz, Zingsheim, Mastin, & Murphy, 2016).

Queer Representations

One of the most robust sites of queer communication studies has been and continues to be critiques of mediated representations of queerness. Some of the earliest work functioned more in the mode of consciousness-raising in its focus on heterosexism across various media (Erni, 1998; Fejes & Petrich, 1993; Gamson, 1998; Gross, 2002; Thompson, 2002). As LGBT characters gained greater visibility, examinations of predictable patterns of stereotypical representations dominated this vein of critical practice. With more frequent and visible representations on television, particular programs or characters elicited significant academic attention, including Ellen DeGeneres (Dow, 2001; Skerski, 2007), Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (Booth, 2011; Clarkson, 2005; Papacharissi & Fernback, 2008; Pearson & Lozano-Reich, 2009; Ramsey & Santiago, 2004; Sender, 2006; Shugart, 2008; Weiss, 2005; Westerfelhaus & Lacroix, 2006), and, Will & Grace (Battles & Hilton-Morrow, 2002; Schiappa, Gregg, & Hewes, 2005; Wolf, 2013). Likewise, movies attracted similar lines of critique, such as Philadelphia (Brookey, 1996) and Brokeback Mountain (Cooper & Pease, 2008; Grindstaff, 2008), multiple filmic treatments of Matthew Shepard (Ott & Aoki, 2002; Lynch, 2007), and filmic representations of trans lives (Booth, 2011; Cooper, 2002; Sloop, 2004).

At the heart of much of this work is what kinds of visibilities are afforded prominence and to what effect for the audiences interacting with them. In general, this branch of queer critique retains as its deconstructive mission the demystification of seemingly queer texts to demonstrate their complicity in hegemonic and normative constructs (Cherney & Lindemann, 2014; Dunn, 2015; Enck & Morrisey, 2015; Goltz, 2010; Gray, 2009b; Landau, 2009; LeMaster, 2015; Sender, 2004). One of the vexing questions with all media criticism, of which queer critique is not immune, is how the critic imagines the relationship between texts, contexts, and audiences. That is, what are the operative assumptions in the critic’s reading strategy regarding the textual agency of the text and how audiences are implicated or not in those textual agencies. So, for example, if a critic claims a text reinforces heteronormativity more than it challenges it, is this an ontological judgment about the text or is it one interpretive possibility that exists alongside other possible judgments? In spite of queer theory’s anti-essentialist assumptions, much of the critique of mediated representations tends toward the former over the latter (Brookey & Westerfelhaus, 2001; Draper, 2010). Greater attention to circulation and audience interpretations has challenged this prevailing practice.

Within communication studies, Edward Schiappa has developed the most extensive critique of the assumed relationship between critical readings of texts and audience uptakes of these messages. Through extensive empirical research, Schiappa (2008) developed the parasocial contact hypothesis, which argues that audiences may not always decode messages in ways predicted by queer critiques of media texts. As an example, Schiappa, Gregg, and Hewes (2006) argues that viewers of Will & Grace changed their beliefs about gay men after watching the program, and not always in ways that align with accepted stereotypes about gay men. Although not directly related to Schiappa’s theories, others have started to think through the implications of more agentic takes on audiences and discourses, wherein audiences may be processing and articulating textual interpretations that differ from expected readings of queer representations (Bennett, 2014; Dhaenens, 2014; LeMaster, 2011; Marwick, Gray, & Ananny, 2014; Sender, 2015). Additionally, some scholars are working through reading strategies that embrace the multiplicities in text whereby either-or choices about complicity with dominant cultures are an insufficient interpretation of representations (Bennett, 2010; Cavalcante, 2015; Ciszek, 2014; Goltz, 2013; King, 2010, 2016; King & West, 2013; West, Frischherz, Panther, & Brophy, 2013). In sum, then, this area of research remains a fertile ground for engaging queer cultural productions.


One of the earliest uses of and elaborations on queer in communication studies focused on queer social movements, such as Queer Nation (Slagle, 1995). What was already latent in other works, especially considerations of HIV/AIDS representations and activism, found a different articulation when framed within academic forms of queer theory (Gilder, 1989; Dow, 1994; Christiansen & Hanson, 1996; DeLuca, 1999; Smith & Windes, 2000; Scott, 2003; Brouwer, 2005; Morris, 2011). Like other political formations, queer political formations questioned their own organizing logics, including the centrality of a fixed identity as a precursor for political action and the ability of political groups to accomplish goals without strict organizational structures or hierarchies (Fejes, 2008; Gross, 2005; Rand, 2014). In many cases, queer political actions questioned the very foundations of publics and their norms of decorum and propriety allowing for expanded notions of politics and publics (Brouwer, 1998, 2005; DeLuca, 1999; Morris & Sloop, 2006). More recently, greater attention has been focused on the rhetorics of rights and citizenship, yet no clear consensus has developed about the queer (im)possibilities of queer citizenships (Bennett, 2009; Campbell, 2012; Chávez, 2010; Lipari, 2002; Moscowitz, 2013; West 2014, 2015).

Of course, the articulation of identities and politics is usually fraught with difficulties as disparate groups attempt to identify with one another in common cause. Differences can impede political action if political actors are not able to overcome these divides (Chávez, 2004).

The communicative dimensions of queer coalitional politics is a burgeoning area of research in its attempt to unite communication theories with political action (Awwad, 2010; Chávez, 2013a; Kearl, 2015; Perez & Goltz, 2010; Samek, 2015; Tate, 2005).


Although in many ways the uptake of queer studies has been frustrated by the norms of communication studies research protocols and ideologies, a substantial body of research exists across the subfields of communication studies to challenge naturalized assumptions about our bodies, genders, relationships, and desires. The communicative dimensions of queer identities are now open for critique regarding their fixity and permanence. What may have once been understood as a medical, legal, or cultural fact may now be thought of as one discursive possibility among others that may fluctuate across one’s lifespan, different contexts, and evolving sense of one’s self. In a similar manner, queer critiques of representations have demonstrated the limits and possibilities of queer words, images, and affects to transform our symbolic landscapes. And investigations of queer political formations remind us of how people navigate more and less hospitable terrains together in and through their similarities and differences. As this work proliferates across communication studies, it will continue to undo the norms and conventions of cultural categories and research practices.

Further Reading

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(1.) De Lauretis (1994) dismissed the utility and vibrancy of queer theory a short while later due to its institutional currency, characterizing it as a “conceptually vacuous creature of the publishing industry” (p. 297). More recently, responding to the sense that queer theory “if not already passé, was rapidly approaching its expiration date” (Halley & Parker, 2011, p.1), numerous conferences and forums have addressed the health of queer studies (Eng, Halberstam, & Muñoz, 2005).

(2.) Erin Rand’s (2014) genealogy of queer theory in academia and its relationship to external articulations of queerness outside academe is an accessible and wide-ranging introduction to this topic.

(3.) Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner (1998) define heteronormativity in the following manner:

By heteronormativity we mean the institutions, structures of understanding, and practical orientations that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent—that is, organized as a sexuality—but also privileged. Its coherence is always provisional, and its privilege can take several (sometimes contradictory) forms: unmarked, as the basic idiom of the personal and the social; or marked as a natural state; or projected as an ideal or moral accomplishment. It consists less of norms that could be summarized as a body of doctrine than of a sense of rightness produced in contradictory manifestations—often unconscious, immanent to practice or to institutions. (p. 548n2)

(4.) The struggle for academic legitimacy and the contested terrain of LGBT studies are chronicled in implicit and explicit ways in Chesebro (1981), Ringer (1994), Yep, Lovaas, and Elia (2003), and Morris (2007).

(5.) More recently, scholars are using queer theory to name and interrogate queer heterosexualities (Coates, 2013; Manning, 2015).

(6.) It should be noted that Foucault’s own myopia limited this study to European contexts, except for passing references to other cultural practices.

(7.) Didier Eribon (2004) challenges the idea of counter-discourse as Foucault describes the temporalities of identities and medical discourses. Eribon flips the script to demonstrate how medical professionals borrowed these discourses of identity from gay subcultures, not vice versa. Also, Sinfield (1994) challenges Foucault’s primacy on medical and legal discourses as a necessary precursor for a more stable sense of gay personage. A parallel case for trans identities can be found in Joanne Meyerowitz’s (2002) history of transsexual medical and psychological care.

(8.) Performance studies scholars have objected to these characterizations of performance because Butler generalizes a theory of performance to a more varied field of ideas about performance and performativity.